For Oregon City Schools Superintendent Mike Zalar, a trip to China last April resulted in more than just great memories of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The trip may open doors to a more global and international way of teaching and learning.
Zalar, along with eight other superintendents from across Ohio, spent a little over two weeks participating in the China Exchange Initiative. The trips were funded by the Freeman Foundation, a program that facilitates educational exchange programs between schools in many states and provinces in the United States and China at the pre-college level.
The program is also sponsored in coordination with the Ohio Department of Education, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Chinese Ministry of Education.
“I am a former World Studies and Geography teacher and have always been interested in international travel,” Zalar said. “Given that the United States and China will be the world leader’s in the 21st century, it makes sense that our two countries develop a better understanding of each other in order to build a more peaceful world. China’s educational system is consistently held up as a model for math and science education and I was interested in seeing how they teach it there.”
|Dr. Michael Zalar, Superintendant of
Oregon Schools with Xiong Fei, the
principal of Wuhan Foreign Language
School in Hubei Province.
Zalar, along with Ottawa Hills Local Schools Superintendent Kevin Miller, joined 40 superintendents from Wisconsin, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. According to Zalar, the individual administrators were partnered with a different school to visit.
“Ohio already has a “sister state” relationship with Hubei Province so the Ohio delegation was matched with schools in this province,” Zalar explained. “Hubei is an industrial center for China similar to Ohio and the Great Lakes region. Most of us in Ohio visited schools in the city of Wuhan.”
Zalar spent the majority of his time at the Wuhan Foreign Languages School, an elementary school focused on the development of foreign languages. Last fall, Zalar hosted Ms. Huang Min, the principal from that school.
Zalar said the Chinese educational system is heavily dependent on testing and is very rigid. English is mandatory for students in the system.
“The young people speak it very well,” he said. “Older people, including teachers, are not very proficient in English. For example, the principal at the school where I visited needed her younger teachers to serve as translators for her during my visit.”
The educational system is a national system based upon the testing of national standards. Testing is “high stakes” in China, Zalar said.
“If you do not perform well on the test at various stages throughout the system, you will be sorted out of school and be forced to work in some kind of menial job,” he said. “Education in China is only compulsory up until the sixth grade. At the end of the sixth grade, students take a test to see who goes on to junior high. Then at the end of junior high they take another test to see who gets to go on to high school. Likewise, the exit test at the end of high school determines who gets to go to college. The better you score on the test the better school you can be admitted to.”
The system does not offer any special education programming for students with special needs, he said.
“In the United States, we strive to educate everybody at a high level of standard regardless of their ability,” Zalar said. “We also try to provide a more general curriculum which promotes teaching students to think critically and creatively. Not to just memorize facts that can be regurgitated on a test.”
Miller, who was superintendent in Hicksville, Oh at the time of his visit, visited Yiling Senior High, in Yichang City. Miller, now superintendent of Ottawa Hills, hosted Mr. Zhou, the principal of the school, in December.
“China, in the past, not been on the forefront of education,” Miller said. “One out of every five children being educated worldwide is in China. They have made great strides over the last few decades but, part of their system is still mired in the 1950‘s and 60’s.”
Miller said the Chinese are very aware of their shortcomings when it comes to education and they are very willing and eager to improve.
“The fact that they are educating such a mass of humans is amazing,” he said. “Their ability to identify where they are weak and being willing to work on those areas is a real strength.”
Along with not having special education programming, the Chinese system is also filled with disparity, Miller said.
“Schools located in poor villages are destitute,” Miller explained. “The schools for the wealthy kids are among the tops in the world. A lot of kids come to the cities from the country because their families are looking for work. Those kids must go to migrant schools. There is a lot of discrimination.”